Egypt's economy has suffered short-term pain from the uncertainty over its political transition – but there's a chance for confidence to pick up after the presidential elections.
Since the uprising, inward investment and tourism revenues have fallen, growth has slowed, unemployment has risen and the fiscal deficit has widened.
But the fundamentals of Egypt's economy have not changed. The country has by far the largest population in the Middle East and is one of the Arab world's most diversified economies. It has oil and gas, world-class tourist attractions and a strategic trading location at the nexus of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. These assets explain why no major investors have pulled out of Egypt since January. There is a chance, though an uncertain one, that Egypt's economic prospects could be improved if the new regime proves to be less corrupt and more meritocratic.
Of course, the country has deep-seated economic problems. Its demographics are a double-edged sword: the fast-growing, young population of 85m or more can be an engine of growth, but too many are stuck in poverty and unemployment, and state services and infrastructure have been unable to cope with the rising numbers. All the new presidential candidates are under pressure to promise to spread the country's wealth more evenly – and to create jobs. Whoever wins will face a difficult task. But the possibility of greater clarity over government policy may help to provide a more conducive environment for investment.
Election Promises Point to Higher Spending
For the most part, the leading candidates are saying fairly similar things about the economy. Policies remain fairly broad-brush at this stage – and, as is often the case in elections around the world, there are more promises to deliver growth and improve services than details about how these things will be achieved.
Overall, campaign rhetoric suggests public spending is likely to rise in the next year. It can be assumed that any new government will be wary of cutting public spending on salaries and consumer subsidies, and there is clear pressure to increase public spending on healthcare, education and infrastructure.
Of the candidates, Aboul Fotouh, an independent Islamist and doctor, aims to increase healthcare spending to 15% of the state budget, and education spending to 25%, by 2016; Amr Moussa has set the same targets with a vaguer timescale; while Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force commander with links to the military establishment, and Hamdeen Sabbahi, a leftist with a Nasserist background, both favour a health insurance scheme for all Egyptians. Housing is another key issue: Aboul Fotouh, Moussa and Shafiq have promised programmes to redevelop Egypt's sprawling slums, while Mursi and Sabbahi both pledged new subsidised housing for the poor (and in Mursi's case, for newlyweds).
Raising revenue will be harder. All the front runners agree about the need for a more progressive tax system. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party has highlighted the need to expand the tax base by legalising and licencing the many businesses that operate informally – but this is likely to be a long-term process, requiring reform of the labyrinthine Egyptian bureaucracy. Several candidates have mentioned the need to cut energy subsidies to industry, which may be a relatively easy win.
Question Marks over Gulf Aid
Earlier this month Saudi Arabia deposited US$1bn with Egypt's central bank, to help shore up foreign exchange reserves, which have suffered from the downturn in tourism and inward investment. But this was over a year after the Saudi government first promised the money, and it came only after a delegation of Islamist politicians visited Riyadh to soothe Saudi concerns over street protests outside its embassy in Cairo (which were a response to Saudi Arabia's detention of an Egyptian human-rights lawyer). Saudi Arabia originally promised $4bn in aid to Egypt, but there is as yet no timescale for the delivery of the remaining US$3bn.
It is likely Riyadh will wait and see who the new president is before it makes further financial commitments. Given Saudi Arabia's close relations with former president Hosni Mubarak, its clear displeasure at the revolution, and its anxiety about the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood both regionally and in its own country, it is likely to favour a candidate with links to the previous regime, such as Amr Moussa or Ahmed Shafiq.
Qatar, which was always more enthusiastic about Egypt's political changes, and far more comfortable with the regional rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, has focused more on private-sector investment, especially in infrastructure. Last May, it signed a deal to develop two new ports in Egypt. This month, QInvest, a Qatari state-backed investment bank, announced it would set up a new regional investment bank as a joint venture with EFG-Hermes, Egypt's largest investment bank, and Qatar Petroleum said it was in serious talks about investing in an Egyptian oil-refinery project – sending signals that Qatar has the appetite to engage in Egypt regardless of who the next president might be.
This is particularly important given the growing crisis in the Eurozone, normally Egypt's main economic partner. European promises of aid have been slow to reach Egypt. European donors and investors are also concerned that the country has not yet reached agreement on a much-discussed IMF deal. Egypt's gripes with the IMF reflect the IMF's historical baggage in Egypt, where there is cross-party political wariness of being beholden to an institution that lavished praise on the former government. Western investors nonetheless – perhaps unfairly – see the IMF deal as an important stamp of approval that Egypt still lacks. If it is finally agreed under a new president, this would give further encouragement for investors to go back into one of the largest economies in the Arab world.
'Bread, Dignity and Social Justice': The Political Economy of Egypt's Transition
Jane Kinninmont, April 2012